MSR’s Lightning Ascent Snowshoes are lightweight, durable snowshoes that are ideal for winter hiking and backpacking in mountainous terrain. They’re designed with a unique 360-degree traction system that allows you to walk up slopes or laterally across them without losing your grip. The Lightning Ascents were the first snowshoes to integrate serrated crampons directly into the snowshoe frame, in addition to more conventional crampon placements under the ball of the foot and the heel.
The Lightning Ascents revolutionized snowshoe design when the first came out about 10 years ago because they significantly improved the amount of traction that snowshoes could provide on icy trails and mountainsides. The serrated frame and lateral supports also prevented something called “snowballing” which occurs when snow and ice clump up in crampon teeth so it feels like your walking on top of bowling balls. This happens on any kind of toothed traction device, including microspikes, and the step-in or strap-on crampons that you attach to winter hiking and mountaineering boots. Since the horizontal rear crampons are not boxed crampons, but serrated horizontal struts built into the frame, snowballing can’t occur. It was ingenious.
The Lightning Ascents also come with Televators that help relieve calf fatigue when snowshoeing up hills. This was also a huge innovation when it was first introduced but is now a standard feature on all backcountry snowshoes designed for use in mountainous terrain. The Televator is a wire loop that can be flipped up under your heel when you are ascending a steep slope and locks into the tread of your boots so it won’t slip. It raises your heel so that you feel like you are walking on a level surface and prevents your calves from burning out on climbs. It also exerts direct pressure on the horizontal bar-shaped crampon under the snowshoe’s heel so you don’t slide backward and lose ground when climbing on hills.
Although using the Televator feels like you’re walking in high heels, you quickly adapt to it. It doesn’t feel wobbly or anything, because the downward force of your weight is distributed laterally across the snowshoe and not on a single tiny point. Plus, you have trekking poles for balance. When you’re done climbing, you can strike your pole handles against the Televators to fold them back down flush with the snowshoe decking.
New Lightning Ascent Paragon Binding
MSR changed the binding system on the Lightning Ascent and Revo Ascent Snowshoes this year, switching from a three-strap binding to the net-like Paragon binding. The old binding consisted of three elastic ski straps that you’d strap and anchor across the top of your boots together with a rear elastic strap to lock your boot into place. The old binding had some advantages. First off, it folded flat when not in use, which made the snowshoes easier to strap to the sides or back of a backpack with the crampons facing out. This made it easier to maneuver through vegetation because the binding wouldn’t catch on bushes or tree branches, the crampons wouldn’t slice into your backpack, and the added weight of the snowshoes would remain centered nearer to your core muscles.
However, the old 3 strap binding had some problems too.
- The elastic ski straps would pop off during hikes for no apparent reason
- The ends of the straps would flap around annoyingly
- You could experience hot spots under the straps on the top of your foot
- It was difficult to get optimal foot placement over the front crampon
The new Paragon binding eliminates all of those problems while still packing flat against the side or back of a backpack. MSR replaced the straps with a flexible net made with the same elastic stretch material that distributes pressure evenly across the top of your boot and eliminates binding hot spots. The front corners of the binding prevent your foot from sliding too far forward, ensuring that the ball of your foot is positioned directly on top of the front crampon every time. That’s a great improvement, especially for beginners. The two corner straps on new binding are held closed with plastic clips and wider at the end than in the body, so they can’t slip through the clips. If you’re the only person using the snowshoe, you can fit the side binding straps to your boots, lock them in place, and never fuss with it again.
The Paragon’s mesh netting feels very natural and you don’t have to make it super tight to hold your foot in place. The
The Heel Strap
The heel strap in the old 3-strap Ascent binding also had problems and would frequently pop open. Some of us would duct tape it permanently shut to prevent this and just use the top straps to secure the snowshoe to our feet. While you can still technically do this with the Paragon binding, I’ve found that the heel strap stays reliably closed in the new binding and doesn’t pop open, in part because MSR provides a plastic clip to help hold it in place and prevent it from working itself loose.
The heel strap even stays secure when you break its plastic keeper clip, which I managed to do the first time I used the new Paragon binding at the end of last winter. (Contact MSR for a replacement if you break one.) Regardless, I suspect that the new Paragon reduces the amount of torsional flexing of the heel strap enough so that it will stay closed even if you bust or lose the clip.
I started testing the new binding last winter and held off on reviewing it until this year because I wanted to make sure that the heel strap stayed closed after additional use. I can’t say that it won’t open unexpectedly for you, but I’ve really tried to make it fail like it does on the old 3-strap binding and it hasn’t, which I’ve found encouraging.
Paragon Binding Upgrade
MSR does not have an upgrade path that would allow you to switch from the old 3-strap Lightning Ascent binding to the new Paragon Binding. If you want the new Paragon binding, you have to buy a new pair of Lightning Ascents or Revo Ascents.
There have been some rumors floating around that MSR would offer an upgrade-kit to add the Paragon binding to an old pair of Lightning Ascents, but those are red herrings. Here’s what MSR told me when I asked my contacts about whether they would ever offer an upgrade-kit:
“The Paragon binding isn’t sold separately in a retrofit kit. Retrofitting (or upgrading) your old snowshoes with the new Paragon binding would mean the whole binding unit would have to be replaced. That unit includes the mesh strap, baseplate, and the crampons. Together, these add up to a significant cost of the whole shoe. Some people have confused the red mesh strap as the “whole binding,” but it’s not.
Additionally, retrofitting your old snowshoes with the new binding makes your current bindings, essentially, waste. If you’d like to upgrade to the Paragon binding, we believe the better—and more sustainable course of action—is to keep your current snowshoes intact so that they can be repurposed to a new user and have a second life.”
Comparable Winter Hiking Snowshoes
|Make / Model||Heel Bar||Binding||Weight (25")||Price|
|MSR Lightning Ascent||Yes||Mesh Net||4 lbs 3 oz||$320|
|Atlas Helium Trail||Yes||Webbing||3 lbs 7 oz||$140|
|Tubbs Flex ALP||Yes||Boa||4 lbs 8 oz||$240|
|TSL Symbioz Elite||Yes||Boa||4 lbs 5 oz||$280|
|MSR Evo Ascent||Yes||Strap||4 lbs 1 oz||$200|
|Tubbs Mountaineers||Yes||Rachet Strap||4 lbs 14.4 oz||$270|
|Northern Lites Backcountry||No||Plastic Straps||2 lbs 11 oz||$235|
|Crescent Moon Gold 10||Yes||Rachet Strap||4 lbs 10.1 oz||$219|
|Louis Garneau Versant||Yes||Boa||4 lbs 11 oz||$235|
|MSR Revo Explore||Yes||Rachet Strap||4 lbs 2 oz||$220|
I’ve used MSR’s Lightning Ascent Snowshoes for trail breaking and on packed trails with the new Paragon binding and they are better than ever. The new binding is simpler to adjust and stays reliably closed even in the toughest conditions. It’s very comfortable, eliminates the hot spots of the previous model, and is designed to provide optimal foot placement over the front crampon for maximum stride efficiency and traction. Once fitted to your winter boots, you really never have to fuss it again and you’ll experience the same perfect fit every time…which is a big improvement on the older model. I was leary when MSR originally announced changes to the Lightning Ascent Snowshoe, because I feared that they’d diminish its legacy as a breakthrough product, but I needn’t have worried. MSR’s Lightning Ascent Snowshoes with the new Paragon Binding are better than ever.
Disclosure: MSR provided the author with a pair of snowshoes for this review.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the affiliate links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.
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